It’s always invigorating and refreshing to see the talents of a new director displayed on screen for the first time. The Black and White Milk Cow (Yi Zhi Hua Nainiu) is such an occasion, especially considering the young age of its creator and the subtle beauty of the results. Jang Yin, born in Beijing, deals in his film with quite a wide array of subjects and themes. Surprisingly, the apparently simple story of a little town in a forgotten Chinese region (a region that seems to be far away from the realities of the new China) and the daily struggles of its inhabitants becomes a poetic swan song for a way of life that is coming to an end.
Following the path of some Iranian filmmakers, particularly the sensibilities of Abbas Kiarostami, Jang Yin creates a world very much influenced by reality, merging fact and fiction in a film that is, most of the time, crossing and pushing the boundaries of documentary and fictional cinema. The story of a young man who, due to the economic difficulties his town is suffering, must quit the university and return to his homeland to work as a country teacher, becomes the story of those who haven’t yet obtained a ticket for the new, more capitalistic-oriented China. The offering from the local authorities of a milk cow as his sole salary (even more, a sick milk cow that refuses to eat) doesn’t appear to stress the young professor, who stoically accepts his job while taking care of his dying grandmother. This might sound like an ironical approach, a metaphorical resource to escape from local censorship. It surely is, but the director also seems to love his characters, never falling into the traps of sympathy and pity.
The Black and White Milk Cow is great filmmaking, austere, lyrical and, above all, sincere. Quite a few of its strengths come from its terrific use of landscape, its very polished use of cinematic elements (such as ellipsis and out of frame characters) and a perfect combination of theme and form. In the end, after the last scene has vanished into the white sky, and several seasons have come and gone, what remains is a strong melancholic feeling: we have heard the last tale this people will ever tell. A beautiful, universal tale that resonates through the ages and the generations. The good news is that its creator will surely come back soon with another, different story.